“Romantic Outlaws:The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley”
Pub: Oct 2015
“I must love and admire with warmth, or I sink into sadness”
I first became interested in Mary Shelley – around 1980 – at school when I realised the old black and white film version of Frankenstein was based on her novel. I’d loved Colin Clive’s mad scientist and Boris Karloff’s monster.
Reading the book turned out to be a further revelation. It was gripping and moving, and really quite wonderful. I have re-read it numerous time since. But it would be many years however before I bothered to read another of her books – The intriguing, The Last Man. Not the easiest read, but worthwhile in many ways.
What I did know, even on first reading, was that she was married to Percy Bryce Shelley, and that her parents had been Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Whilst many spoke or knew of Shelley and his poems, fewer mentioned Wollstonecraft of Godwin, and I’ll admit they held little interest to me either, until a chance happening upon a copy of Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ at University.
I was immediately taken by the passion in her writing and also by how strange it must have been for readers in the 1700’s reading such words from the pen of a woman. I was surprised she wasn’t a household name.
I managed to track down copies of some of her other works – some I’ll admit I liked much more than others, and also read a handful of biographies: Margaret Tims’ – Mary Wollstonecraft – A Social Pioneer; Edna’s Nixon’s – Mary Wollstonecraft – Her Life and Times; and Claire Tomalin’s – The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.[All still sit on my bookshelves].
It was hard not to be impressed by her. Yes she could be contradictory with a small C, and yes she could be floored by affairs of the heart; but frankly so can we all. I have remained a fan.
This rather long preamble is because I had not had a desire to read a new biography of Wollstonecraft until I saw ‘Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley’ . Charlotte Gordon had decided to link the two Mary’s, to have them live in tandem on the page in a way they had not, tragically, achieved in life.
Gordon’s engaging approach is to take us from birth to death for both Mary’s in alternating chapters, designed, and dare I say plotted, to demonstrate the similarities – as well as some of the differences – between their lives and outlook.
I must confess I knew very little about Mary Shelley’s life, and the level of death she endured in her life from her mother’s death days after giving birth onwards. Nor was I aware of the life-long tensions between Mary and her half sister Claire, and Mary and her father whose own financial welfare seemed to become more important to him than his daughter – although her expected her, through Percy, to provide for it.
It is also impressive to see how she managed to navigate around the pressures of not only being the daughter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, but also the wife of Shelley.
There is a real love for Mary Shelley, indeed both Mary’s in Godwin’s book. She addresses the accusations – from some – of weakness in Mary Wollstonecraft over suicide attempts over broken hearts, as if in some way such actions undermined her wishes for equality and freedom. As Godwin points out, in some ways Mary would probably seen the act as noble, honourable and principled, not weak.
My favourite new fact – to me at least – from the book is where Godwin says that if you look up the word prostitution is the index of The Anti-Jacobin Review, the entry reads, ‘see Mary Wollstonecraft’. This was just how dangerous and indecent many people at the time and for a good while after her death thought Mary was. She was a danger to the fabric of decent society.
When reading the previous Wollstonecraft biographies I have always been particularly moved by the death (suicide) of Mary Wollstonecraft’s first child, Fanny. Perhaps this in part is due to living in Swansea for many years where Fanny had travelled to end her life. I must admit I had the short clipping from the Cambrian newspaper announcing the death of the unknown young lady taped to my desk for a number of years. Gordon’s biography if anything makes it even sadder. It is hard not to think that she was essentially abandoned by her family. She didn’t have a great mind and that in itself seemed to leave her stranded from the family pack. A cruel fate.
I could write much more: about the romances between Godwin and Wollstonecraft, Godwin and Shelley, and the excitement and tragedy of the times, but I will leave you to do that for yourselves.
If one were nit picking you could argue that has choosing the facts and quotes to fit her romantic outlaw topic, but then again there are plenty of other biographical options out there , on both women, for contrast if you wish to seek them out.
Time to stick Romantic Outlaws on your Christmas list.